Africa Faces Grim Future As
AIDS Shadow Spreads

By Andrew Quinn

MARAISBURG, South Africa (Reuters) - Its space-age domes gleaming under the hot sun, Sparrow Rainbow village might seem an optimistic vision of Africa's 21st century future.
Laughing children play on grassy lawns, adults gather to chat in the village square and bright laundry hangs in the breeze. But everyone at Sparrow village has AIDS. And most will die from it.
South Africa's first "AIDS village", an ultra-modern community set up on the outskirts of Johannesburg, is one face of an epidemic raging across the continent.
But its architecture can do little to mask the death and economic devastation that AIDS is wreaking on some of the world's poorest countries -- a disaster compounded by drought, hunger and poverty.
Death visits Sparrow village about four times a week. Many adults residents are often too sick to get out of bed. Most of its children are orphans.
"Sometimes its like a cloud hangs over us, but we try to keep going," said Lynette Nel, co-director of the village which was set up earlier this year by an interdenominational Christian charity organisation.
As Africa prepares to mark World AIDS Day on Sunday, the numbers tell a harrowing tale of a continent's woe.
Of the estimated 42 million people worldwide infected with HIV, almost 30 million live in sub-Saharan Africa, most far from the reach of medical treatments which might prolong their lives.
In southern Africa, the area hardest hit by the disease, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe now have adult infection rates higher than 30 percent, according to figures released this week by the United Nations.
South Africa alone has close to 5 million people infected with the disease. State-funded medical researchers estimate that up to seven million people will die of AIDS-related causes by 2010 if the government does not act.
Across the region, countries are struggling with a pandemic costing billions of dollars as farmers, teachers, miners and shopkeepers fall sick and die.
"There has never been such a devastating assault on a continent," said Stephen Lewis, the U.N.'s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. "There are no precedents for what is happening in Africa today."
Families are being left destitute, companies scrambling to replace workers and agricultural output is dropping -- exacerbating food shortages that have already put more than 14 million people on the brink of starvation.
U.N. officials the AIDS epidemic is a major cause of Africa's current food crisis. It is a sign, they say, of how basic building blocks of society can crumble in the face of the disease.
Sparrow village is one response to a health emergency threatening to overwhelm the region's fragile medical infrastructure. Here, thanks to donations, a handful of AIDS patients can live out their days free from the stigmatisation and prejudice often attached to the disease.
Most other AIDS victims are not so lucky. In some areas, hospitals are running out of beds as widespread HIV infection finally tips into full-blown AIDS. Meanwhile, many mortuaries are full and funeral parlours are doing a roaring business.
At the Soweto Hospice outside Johannesburg, nurses try to organise home care for hundreds of AIDS sufferers. Dozens more sick people arrive each day looking for help.
But the hospice, the only organization of its kind in a sprawling township community of some 3 million people, has only nine beds. They are always full -- but occupants change daily.
"We get deaths every day," said Zodwa Sithole, a project coordinator at the hospice.
South Africa, widely criticised after President Thabo Mbeki questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, continues to resist approving the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs, the only medication known to slow the progress of the disease.
But while officials say the drugs have been too expensive, and perhaps too toxic, for widespread use, there are signs of a more activist approach toward fighting the AIDS crisis.
"South Africa is prepared to do anything that is necessary," Deputy President Jacob Zuma told Reuters television in a recent interview. "It is an enormous battle, but we will get a handle on it."
Officials and AIDS workers point to other signs of hope, from Uganda's successful drive to reduce new HIV infections to rising condom use in a number of countries. But with southern Africa's food crisis only just beginning and AIDS donations from developed nations lagging far below United Nations targets, most agree that Africa's AIDS apocalypse has only just begun.
"A lot of this is unimaginable. But we are going to have to start imagining it. It is happening," Lewis said.
At Sparrow village, residents count their few blessings. The community, which now houses some 85 people, is being rapidly expanded with dozens of new "dome homes" going up to cope with a tidal wave of new terminal AIDS cases.
For Mbali Sibiya, a 30-year-old mother who came to the village with her 3-year-old daughter Nquobile, the village provides a last refuge of hope and friendship even as the AIDS virus surges through her blood.
"In the end, we're all six feet under, you and me," Sibiya said. "But we are fighting this fight to the end."
Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of Reuters Limited


This Site Served by TheHostPros